PORTLAND – Several blocks in the Old Port were shut down and hundreds of people attending University of New England graduation activities were diverted Saturday afternoon because of a bomb scare on Federal Street.

Officials ultimately determined that a beeping noise reported to authorities came from a cellphone inside a purse that had been stuffed into a U.S. Postal Service mailbox.

While it posed no danger, the incident nevertheless shuttered businesses and kept motorists from their parked vehicles for about three hours on a busy weekend in a section of Portland’s downtown.

Using police tape, Portland police cordoned off a three-block area bordered by Congress, Pearl, Federal and Temple streets shortly after 1 p.m. after a passer-by reported a beeping sound coming from a mailbox on Federal Street. The mailbox is across the street from the Edward T. Gignoux Federal Court House and behind the Portland Fire Department’s Central Station.

Businesses in the area closed and residents who live in the area were advised to stay inside while a specially equipped vehicle containing the Hazardous Devices Unit set up on Exchange Street and worked to determine what was inside the mailbox.

Accompanied by a robot, Sgt. Frank Gorham, dressed in heavy protective gear, was sent in to take X-ray images of the mailbox’s contents. It took about an hour to analyze those images before Gorham returned to the mailbox, opened it up and found the purse, shortly before 4 p.m.

Meanwhile, some of the hundreds of people heading to the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine graduation at Merrill Auditorium stopped by to watch the action.

Tim Paradis, who lives in the area, was unable to get to his vehicle parked in the barricaded area.

“I had a little bit of work to do, but nothing critical. I am saluting our heroes in blue instead,” Paradis said.

The Federal Spice restaurant on Federal Street closed for three hours.

“My big business is around 1 p.m.,” said Eric Martin, who was serving a single patron once he reopened.

Lt. Gary Rogers said police were concerned because the Post Office mailbox was so close to the Federal Court House.

Rogers said it was not immediately clear whether the purse had been reported stolen or lost. He did not identify the owner of the recovered purse.

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

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